Friday, May 20, 2011

The banjo is that most platypus of musical instruments. Is it a Piltdown mash-up of guitar and drum, or a machine adapted by United States slaves from Africa? A bit of both? A bit of neither? Whatever the case, the banjo, like pizza, is a U.S. invention and became best known after the release of John Boorman’s 1972 film, Deliverance, which spawned the crossover hit “Dueling Banjos”, an AM radio staple.

In Boorman’s film, the banjo is played by an autistic hillbilly boy. That such a character should become the best-known banjo player in the world struck me as odd, given the instrument’s roots. But then, I cannot imagine many post-WWII African-Americans wanting their children to learn an instrument associated with 19th century minstrel music. How is it that the banjo was embraced by those who insisted its inventors were uncivilized?

When I was twenty-five my father gave me a banjo for Christmas, which also struck me as odd because after the age of eighteen he had stopped giving me presents. Yes, I had been playing in a band where a banjo would be welcome (and was), but I was also undergoing chemotherapy, and the last thing I imagined was the day after the one I was struggling to get through.

As it turned out, the banjo was just what I needed -- a hopeful gift and a distraction from the chemicals that were both eating and cleaning my body. But my father being my father, I was never sure. After thanking him, he took the instrument from my hands, plucked the strings admiringly, and said, in manner both deadpan and absent, "So, if these treatments don’t work out, you’ll see that this banjo gets back to me."

1 comment:

  1. The banjo is a descendant of the kora. The kora is an instrument made from a hollowed gourd called a calabash. The instrument is associated with the griots/historians in West African countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and others. When West African people were enslaved and transported, the people's musical ingenuity was also transported and adapted in the New World.

    In modern times there is a negative association with banjo music and/or old time music by many African Americans because of its association as the music of the racist South. However groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops are reaching back to its African origins and reclaiming the instrument as well as old time music.

    The virtuoso banjo player Bela Fleck made a celebrated movie about the instruments history and unchained ingenuity of the African people who 'invented' the instrument.

    Allegedly the boy in the Deliverance movie was sitting at the gas station when the movie crew passed by en-route to another shoot. He began to play with the banjoist and the camera man shot the impromptu performance. The unscripted scene was later added to the movie and the song came to possess a peculiar place in the public imagination.

    I hope Michael you are enjoying good health and finger picking.